From the state of affairs at 859 Bank St. in Ottawa's upscale Glebe neighbourhood, you'd never guess a restaurant launch is just three weeks away.
It's late June, and the 1,700-square-foot space is cluttered with ladders and tool bins, buckets and discarded cups. Wires hang from unfinished sockets. You have to step carefully to avoid dust piles, bags of grout and giant spools. A half-dozen construction workers pore over blueprints or ascend to the rafters to hang fixtures. The oven and ice cream machine are still shrink-wrapped, countertops have yet to be installed, and most of the fridges haven't arrived – they've cleared customs but are somewhere in Brampton, Ont. The health inspection is in five days.
"I've seen worse," says David Segal, surveying the scene. "It's always like this in the end." Every day for the past two weeks, he says, he's woken up to an unanticipated cost "or a launch-threatening delay."
Mr. Segal has a lot riding on the success of this fast-casual salad restaurant, called Mad Radish.
The 36-year-old Ottawa native is best known as the David behind DavidsTea Inc., the chain he co-founded in 2008 with cousin and Le Château founder Herschel Segal.
Together they turned tea from a stodgy drink into a sensory retail experience. The bright, airy, teal stores featured walls of eclectic, unconventional blends with names such as Chocolate Cake and Cotton Candy. Service was high touch. Tea purists scoffed, but customers couldn't get enough.
But DavidsTea has been in a steep descent since going public in 2015. It's on its fifth CEO in six years (Mr. Segal gave up the role in 2011 and later became its "brand ambassador"), sales growth has stalled, and the stock has lost 70 per cent of its value. New CEO Joel Silver recently admitted that the company – with 232 stores in Canada and the United States and facing stiff competition from Starbucks' Teavana chain – suffered from "self-inflicted wounds." At the June annual meeting, former chairman Pierre Michaud criticized the firm's leadership and stock performance.
Amid the turmoil, Mr. Segal left the company in March, 2016, and subsequently sold his remaining shares. Herschel remains on the board and holds 51 per cent of DavidsTea shares.
Mr. Segal won't comment on his departure or the woes facing the chain that bears his name, but they clearly rankle. He tried to mount a takeover bid backed by Bain Capital, but his cousin, the controlling shareholder, wasn't interested. "Absolutely I do" feel DavidsTea's hard times personally, he said during one of several interviews over the past six months. "Leaving DavidsTea was hard. But I'm more excited for Mad Radish at this stage than I was at DavidsTea. I'm excited to take some of the lessons I learned … and apply them here."
Now Mr. Segal is out to show that his initial success with DavidsTea was no fluke. Starting with two Ottawa locations – the first opens Friday downtown, followed by the Glebe location on July 24 (four days later than planned) – he plans to expand nationally, adding five Mad Radishes next year and 10 in 2019. He has personally bankrolled the millions of dollars for the launch and recruited a top chef (Nigel Finley, from Toronto's The Chase), a seasoned operator (Adam Tomczyk, an executive with U.S. chain Chopt Creative Salad Company) and co-founder Stephanie Howarth, DavidsTea's former marketing vice-president.
Can the man who made tea exciting succeed in salads? It won't be easy. Fast-food customers aren't suffering for healthier options: Freshii and Mexican food giant Chipotle are expanding in Canada, and major cities boast multiple healthy order-and-dash options. Even quick-service giants such as Tim Hortons and McDonald's have broadened their menus. The big question: How to stand out?
Mr. Segal and Ms. Howarth – Mr. Segal's first hire at DavidsTea – began developing Mad Radish a year ago, weeks after leaving their former employer. Before they had one salad conceived – or even hired a chef – they set out to build the concept's look, marketing and food philosophy.
They wanted a warm and happy experience, so they chose blue, not green, as their brand colour and a name that suggested playful creativity while nodding to the fresh ingredients. Other salad chains, Ms. Howarth said, "had what we called the green-and-white spaceship aesthetic," with aloof urban concepts where it felt like "you're being prescribed a salad because you're a bad boy."
"We're going to focus on food quality and 'chef-driven,' " she said. "Health is the third message. A lot of salad concepts start with health. You're wasting marketing dollars by going back to something that's inherent to the concept."
Other names they considered but discarded included Black Radish ("too serious," Ms. Howarth said), Brassica ("intimidating") and Fat Carrot.
They decided utensils and dishes would be recyclable or biodegradable despite the higher cost, and all sales would be transacted digitally – allowing customers to order and pay from their phones while saving on cash-handling costs. "We're trashless and cashless," Mr. Segal said.
These branding decisions go beyond colours and names, he said. At DavidsTea "we were in the water infusion business." That empowered his team to reimagine tea as more than a dull, narrowly defined beverage. Inventive, aromatic blends were packaged into an inviting concept where customers could sniff tins for 20 minutes before shelling out for pricey products.
Doing the same thing for salad? That's where Mr. Finley comes in.
Mr. Segal found the 33-year-old chef late last year through a recruiter. The bearded, low-key Halifax native with a mackerel tattoo on his right forearm grew up eating meals made from scratch and has spent half his life working in kitchens, developing a passion for knowing the source of his ingredients. "I was immediately enthralled by the opportunity to be a pioneer," Mr. Finley said, adding he was impressed by the clean-cut Mr. Segal, an enthusiastic, fast-talking individual with lively eyes. "He's passionate from the first sentence."
With Mad Radish, the founders hope to please foodies while targeting the masses. Mr. Segal believes Mad Radish could work at roadside stops.
The concept aims to position salads as a "crave-worthy" meal for the fast-food crowd, with average dishes priced at about $13 – an amount the founders say is justified by the use of fresh ingredients and the presentation.
"You've got to taste this and be like, 'Oh God, I want more,'" Mr. Segal said. "It shouldn't feel like eating bird food [or honouring] a New Year's resolution."
That means no frozen corn, "sad" cubes of factory chicken, hard croutons, canned chickpeas or globs of quinoa. Iceberg lettuce is out, and even romaine is scarce (chicory and kale are preferred). Every ingredient in Mad Radish's 12 salads and three "warm bowl" meals, as well as drinks, bread, homemade vegan ice cream and soups has been thought out by Mr. Finley and much of it sourced from small Canadian farms. Mr. Finley started by creating 150 salads, then cut that number by half before focus groups tasted them earlier this year, leading to the final cut. Everything will be prepared on site – even the croutons.
Amid the chaos in late June, Mr. Segal sounds optimistic but nervous. "Shame on us if we can't deliver," he says. "It has to work."
Despite increasing competition in a crowded space, "fast casual" remains the top-growing restaurant segment and is "quite open" for a concept such as Mad Radish, said Doug Fischer of food-service consultancy FHG International. "It's still a good opportunity."
Asked about sales expectations, Mr. Segal admits he's not sure. "People need to fall in love with what we're doing. That's the first objective. The biggest mistake you can make out of the gate is to overemphasize cost structure. You believe there's a market, you do everything you can to execute at a world-class level, then you open the doors and see how the public responds."
"We spent a lot of time trying to answer the question: 'Why does the world need this?" Ms. Howarth said. "We've done our homework. I need a sale … to validate what I believe are great choices."